Norcia, ancient city of Roman origin perched on a hilltop of 600 metres overlooking the valley, is known around the world for two things: the first being the birthplace of Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine Order, in 480 C.E.; and the second being a way of ennobling the arts of human labour having cultivated since the Middle Ages a tradition of pork charcuterie and black truffle hunting, two local delicacies appreciated worldwide for their rarity. Indeed, in the Italian language, the words “Norcino” and “Norcineria” derive from the name of our town and local tradition, and have come to refer to artisanal pork butchers and butcheries, respectively.
Historic photo below — two swine butchers from Norcia and a glimpse of the interior of a typical butchery (Source: Google).
History can be a funny thing. Sometimes, prohibition can end up being quite antithetical to the goals it had in mind in the first place.
The ban imposed on the monks of the Abbey of Saint Eutizio by the Lateran Council of 1215 regarding practicing surgery on the human body forced these men of the cloth to pass on their specialized knowledge to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, especially nearby Preci. Given that the art of butchery was already the staple trade of the town, learning the art of medicine came rather naturally to the villagers. The surgeons of Preci came to be known as “empiricists” since they never studied medicine at university but rather developed their competencies through experience, the teachings of the monks, and from ancient manuals they had carefully preserved. This vocation was passed down through the generations, from father to son to grandson, and the reputation of the surgeons of Preci and Norcia came to be known across Europe even in the courts of sovereigns and popes. One of the most illustrious medical families of this region were the Scacchi (Cesare Scacchi being the most renowned). The reputation of this family became so great that Queen Elizabeth I of England, whose vision was so afflicted by terrible cataracts, desperately called on Cesare Scacchi to perform surgery on her eyes. The reward for restoring her eyesight was a thousand crowns.
On the first floor of the Abbey of Saint Eutizio, one can examine the reproductions of some surgical instruments from the Middle Ages, medical texts, an alchemist’s laboratory for the preparation of medicines, and a small pharmacy.
Medieval cataract surgery. Queen Elizabeth I of England called on Cesare Scacchi from Preci to perform such an operation on her.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was Queen of England and Ireland and is considered one of Britain’s greatest monarchs
Surgical instruments designed by Durante Scacchi (Museum of Surgery, Preci)
Painted ceramic depicting a surgeon from Preci performing an operation on the testicles of a patient. The writing reads: WITHOUT THE DOCTOR’S HELP, THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN REMOVED, 1619 [Source: “Traces of a Historic and Artistic Itinerary from the Abbey of Saint Eutizio of Preci”]
Eighteenth-century manual of surgery
Today, the Museum of Surgery of Preci exhibits a significant collection of historic writings and medical instruments.
Along these roads walked Saint Benedict from Norcia to visit Saint Eutizio to pray long into the winter evenings to Saint Spes, his spiritual role model. One time even Saint Francis climbed up this hill en route to Ascoli to visit the abbey, intrigued by the reputation of the medical “school” here. Today, these ancient paths remain intact and open to interested visitors.
The Abbey of Saint Eutizio, founded in 470 by Saint Spes, Saint Eutizio, and Saint Fiorenzo, became home to one of the most important Benedictine communities. It is situated on a hilltop above caves where Syrian monks lived in the early decades of the fifth century. The current structure is organized around two courtyards, the first of which is accessible from three exits of the neighbouring medieval church.
The monks here were the first to study medicine and experiment with medicinal plants to alleviate suffering and cure sickness. It was here that the famous Preci school of medicine was born. And even though they were forbidden by higher clerics from dedicating themselves to the study of medicine, these monks played a critical role in passing down their skills and knowledge to their neighbours in the nearby villages, thus creating an environment favourable to the advancement of empirical medical studies.
Photo below — In the abbey complex of Saint Eutizio, one can still visit the caves where Saint Benedict of Norcia prayed (above is a portrait of Fra Angelico).
The Sibylline Mountains have always been a place of great stories and fantastic legends, of preserved wilderness from a much older time dazzling in its austere beauty, of sanctuaries perched on mountaintops, of convivial meals and fragrant spices. This wilderness, its waters, caves, and lakes have given rise to mysterious and evocative stories.
It is Sybil, the ancient oracle who was believed to dwell in the deep gorges of the mountains, who has animated this place from time immemorial. She was an oracle to be consulted about the future and entrusted with one’s troubles and doubts, as has been recounted in novels since the fifteenth century. According to legend, in the bowels of Mount Sybil lies an enchanted kingdom that could only be reached through a narrow cave. It is a world populated by wonderful creatures that for one day a week turn into fearsome monsters.
Myth has it that the body of Pontius Pilate, who was sentenced to death by the Emperor Tiberius, was thrown into Lake Pilate, a small lake found deep in the Sibylline Mountains. The story has it that he was first stuffed into a sack that was then attached to a cart of buffalo free to roam aimlessly around the countryside. These animals wandered all the way here from Rome and reached the top of Mount Redeemer from whose crest Pilate’s body fell into the lake.
A tangle of mysterious yet paradoxically calming landscapes are open to visitors of the National Park of the Sibylline Mountains where rare species of animals that have disappeared elsewhere can still be found, such as wolves, wildcats, porcupines, and the roe deer. For a few years now, the park has also been reintroducing into the wild colonies of elk and antelope, golden eagle, goshawk and sparrow hawk, the eagle-owl and peregrine falcon, birds that take us back to the days of medieval hunting and the earliest landscape paintings.
It is a park that joins together the Regions of the Marche and Umbria offering ancient and diverse food products (from the prosciutto of Norcia to the lentils of Castelluccio), extraordinary places of spirituality such as the Abbey of Saint Eutizio at Preci, and historic and natural itineraries of incomparable quality.
Ancient engraving depicting the Apennine Sibyl, mythical inhabitant of the homonymous cave of Mount Sybil, which for centuries has been veiled in an aura of legend and mystery.
View of Lake Pilate
Mount Sybil as drawn by Antoine de La Sale (1420) conserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris
The slender ridge leading from Mount Redeemer to the Devil’s Point.
WHAT ARE NITRATES AND NITRITES?
They are preservatives that contribute to food safety but can also be toxic if ingested in too high of quantities. This ambivalence worthy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde causes confusion among consumers with some praising these substances and others demonizing them.
Nitrates and nitrites should not be banned at all costs. According to recent studies, once our bodies have broken down nitrates into the simpler compound of nitric oxide, this byproduct can have many positive health benefits such as the prevention of infection and vascular disease, reinforcing our stomach lining, and improving athletic performance. This would explain why our bodies naturally produce these substances in small quantities. Banning them would therefore be excessive and unreasonable.
The Acceptable Daily Intake (established by scientific authorities based on available toxicological data representing the maximum amount of a substance that a person, based on weight, can consume daily — even over the course of an entire lifetime — with no identifiable risks given the most up-to-date information) in relation to 1kg of human mass is 3.7mg of nitrates and 0.07mg of nitrites. Following this calculation, a person weighing 70kg should not consume more than 259mg of nitrates (3.7mg x 70kg) and 4.9mg of nitrites a day (0.07mg x 70kg).
Compared to the past, people today are consuming more nitrates and nitrites. The increased consumption of these substances can in part be attributed to their use in industrial agriculture and thus their greater presence in plant products and especially in vegetables (where nitrate levels may even have doubled) due to the use of fertilizers with synthetic nitrates. Larger quantities of nitrites and nitrates are also being used in preservatives more so than in the past. We therefore believe that our organic choice not to use these substances not only protects the wellbeing of humans, animals, and the environment, but also guarantees quality products.
LEGISLATION REGARDING FOOD PRESERVATIVES
The development of a statutory framework for the production of organic cured and pre-cooked meat products began in 1996, however, at that point their legal referent was still the law regulating organic crop cultivation (which in fact banned the use of preservatives). In Europe, the official legislation from 2002 regulating the production of organic products allowed for the use of preservatives. It was not until late 2007 that a new law was introduced for organic foods that mandated a reduction of preservatives in cooked products (such as hams and mortadella). This statute requires a much more restricted use of nitrites in organic foods than in conventional products.
Our Norcia prosciutto is salted twice with sea salt and small amounts of pepper. After the first salting, the prosciutto is left to rest for seven days in a low temperature (1-4°C) and high humidity (70%-80%) space. This is followed by a cleaning and draining process and then the second salting, which lasts this time for 14 to 18 days. Our prosciuttos must be aged for at least 12 months, and the necessary characteristics of our final product in order to be brought to market are as follows: pear shaped (obtained by trimming the prosciutto); weight of no less than 8.5kg; a slice of our prosciutto must appear compact and be dark pink to light red in colour; it must have a characteristic lightly spicy smell; and it must taste savoury but not salty. Our Norcia Prosciutto is marked with a special badge identifying its status as a product with a Protected Geographic Indication.